Author’s Intro: In Riding with George, I use my background as a war correspondent, sports reporter, and amateur equestrian to focus on Washington’s exploits as a foxhunter, woodsman, warrior, and man of manners, explaining how George’s performances helped crystallize his contribution to our modern ideas of sportsmanship and chivalry, even as they also highlight the intimate ties between sports and war.
It isn’t difficult to understand George Washington’s interest in becoming an expert fencer while stationed in Winchester, Virginia. It was not necessarily about improving his military skills, though that was certainly a part of the attraction. This was an ancient sport with obvious martial origins that British and European citizens cherished for several reasons. It allowed them to display their skill and prowess, and it also offered defense of a man’s sacred honor. The sport fit George’s vision of courage, bravery, and honor like a glove.
Since I inherited an unwieldy showpiece of a 19th century cavalry sabre myself—one that hangs on a door as a means of last defense outside my bedroom—I decided that lessons at the Virginia Academy of Fencing in nearby Fairfax County might allow me to kill two birds with one weapon. I could bolster my home defenses and also gain some insight into the otherwise arcane—to me, at least—world of 18th century fencing. The idea of taking up the sport of sword fighting also sounded like a lot of good fun.
The decor and general clientele at the academy reminded me vaguely of the archery range I frequented as a child. It had a slightly medieval air. The doors were guarded by a couple of dismounted Spanish explorers in tights with long spears. Inside, an armored knight,
the kind usually reserved for German castles, guarded the entrance to the men’s room. “Everything is for sale for the right price,” said a gentleman at the front desk. That included a replica Roman legion helmet and a plethora of small and large fighting knights.
Across from the front desk, I noticed several intense fencing matches going on, all being scored by an electronic system that apparently rated a good stab to the face or torso much higher than a slash to the thigh. Dozens of enraptured family members sat on the edge of their seats as if viewing a movie, facing the fencers, who included—to my surprise as a novice—several attractive and limber women in the requisite cage masks.
Though Washington was no historian, his early reading lists and subsequent book purchases suggest his keen interest in the classical eras of Greek and Roman civilization. Swordsmanship had been a cherished aspect of these ancient martial traditions, and one-on-one dueling often began or ended a battle between two armies. In the tradition of single combat, a great fighter would often be sent forth to take on a representative of an opposing army, with the expectation that the warriors would fight to the death. Homer’s detailed clashes between Achilles, Ajax, and Hector are memorable for not only their drama but also the reverence they show toward the meaning of one-on-one combat. Romans also brought sword and spear fighting into the Colosseum and turned them into thrilling spectator sports, often with horrific finales. Though spears were often the weapon of choice for Roman soldiers, the soldiers also used swords and knives to help them conquer much of the known world.
During conquests of Europe, soldiers often clashed with horsemen, fights that required a longer sword. Men on horses carried long swords themselves, often fencing together in close combat. In a natural progression, medieval Europe saw the rise of one-on-one combat as both a regulated sport and a means of maintaining a man’s honor. In England, knights fighting for the king were adept swordsmen, often with exceptional equestrian skills, and they were trained in other lethal sports also, including archery.
Like the Greeks and Romans, the Europeans also valued one-on-one combat. Swordplay became a means of venting anger and settling disputes. Eventually, dueling became accepted as a refined form of trial by combat to end a dispute, even when (counterintuitively) the innocent or wronged party might lose the fight. In other words, a fair duel between equals came to be accepted as the last word in a gentleman’s disagreement.
In 17th and 18th century Virginia, a sword had come to be seen as a part of a gentleman’s attire. Sword clashes during close combat and in naval battles were not uncommon, but by the middle of the 18th century the sword embodied a mostly symbolic function. Gentlemen did not often unsheathe their swords over a small dispute but rather kept them on hand as showpieces or for ready use in case of a great insult to their honor. Antebellum society placed the highest premium on class and honor, and the classic duel was a way for gentlemen to prove both. Indeed, even in George’s era, the legality of the duel held firm in many colonies and states. Proponents argued that keeping dueling legal worked toward the maintenance of public civility. The logic went like this: in order to avoid duels, proper gentlemen needed only comport themselves with honor and decency toward their fellow gentlemen. In other words, if everyone behaved decently—not hurling insults and slander around in wanton disregard of others, which was a tall order—there would be no need for a duel.
Interestingly, dueling itself was an act of proper comportment, and elaborate rituals evolved around sword fighting, including saluting one’s opponent, which included bowing gracefully. These actions and displays became an intimate part of a baroque protocol of civility, one with ancient origins. In the same way that the rituals surrounding foxhunting disguised the possible bloodletting in the field, swordplay also managed to cover the realities of a brutal duel with a charade of theatrics and ceremony.
For Washington, who struggled to repress his anger and resentments, swordplay was just one more sporting outlet for his love of display and prowess. He traveled with fencing masters and took lessons early in his military career. Wielding a sword appears to have been something he was expected to learn at a young age, and his older half brother Lawrence may well have given him lessons, or at least a demonstration, prior to more formal, self-funded lessons.
George is not known to have sought justice through a duel. Despite numerous perceived slights and insults from gentlemen of his own class, he never provoked or accepted a duel. By all evidence, he was courageous in battle but did not seek to settle his disputes with physical brutality of any sort. He was known to wrestle on occasion with friends, and he sought to perfect his own martial skills, but when he finally became commander in chief, he worked during the Revolution to discourage dueling. This was a pragmatic call; there were so many rivalries and disputes among his fellow officers that accepting dueling as a means of settling differences held forth the likelihood of depleting his own staff.
His own rules against dueling did not diminish Washington’s love of the sword, and he always carried one into battle. Later in life, he would become a collector of sorts, which was not uncommon for men of his stature. Archaeologists I met at his boyhood home in Fredericksburg had uncovered in the dirt the hand guard of an old sword, a telltale sign of George’s family’s veneration of swordsmanship. Lawrence, who served aboard a British ship, knew how to handle a sword in combat, as did many in his extended family. Lawrence, Austin, and their father, Gus, had attended the Appleby School in England, where understanding the use of a sword was considered essential.
I was excited to add swordplay to my repertoire, even after my agility was flagging somewhat. I was reading a book on modern swordsmanship in which author Nick Evangelista—an excellent name for a swordsman, to my mind—wrote, “The sword has been termed the ‘Queen of Weapons,’ and has been viewed as a symbol of justice, nobility, and male sexuality.” The mix of gender metaphors threw me for a loop, but there were no women in my historical swordsmanship class, so I was eased off this potential quandary. A quick look around at my classmates, 16 fellow fencers, suggested to me that wannabe knights, including me, would be more impressive when and if their beer bellies were fully disguised behind shining armor.
I whispered to a balding chap about my age, “We should have taken this up decades ago!” He nodded and smiled. Next to him were a few quaint father-and-son pairings, and finally at the end were several young men who appeared at first glance to have acquired an interest in fencing through computer gaming. Several of them were rather pale and scrawny. One in particular was tall and greasy, with long hair, and I immediately made a note to remember him as the Dungeons and Dragons guy. I had a vague feeling we would be stabbing one another at some point.
It was my good luck that I became a pupil of one of Virginia’s most admired master swordsmen, Bill Grandy, who was coincidentally also writing a book—though his was about Renaissance-era swordsmanship. A tall, dark-eyed, and slender gentleman of some thirty-five years, Bill actually would look good with just a fork in his hand, and I soon came to know him, as my fellow classmates did, simply as Coach Grandy.
For our class in historical swordsmanship, we would be schooled in two main weapons, the German longsword and the Italian rapier. In the end, Coach Grandy assured us that we would also be able to wield daggers alongside our swords, a kind of crowning glory to our endeavors. The German longsword was a medieval instrument, the kind of weapon that King Arthur’s knights would have wielded. I lifted a long sword up with two hands and discovered it to be extremely heavy, maybe more appropriate for Arnold Schwarzenegger or Russell Crowe.
Coach Grandy stressed that much of the success of a longswordsman was in footwork. You can’t exactly hop around with a longsword, so stability is key and steps need to be deliberate and well timed. We learned the basic steps, including a passing step, which Grandy said could be modified to move to the side to help the longswordsman avoid being struck. I immediately assumed this would be a good defense short of running out the door. We weren’t actually supposed to hit one another in the head with the sword, but I had a creeping feeling that Dungeons was already planning his next move and didn’t play by the rules. (I wanted to try to think like my foe.)
With two hands on the sword, I tried out a few of the classic guards: the plow guard, good for farmers, I guessed; the roof guard, which involved raising the sword directly overhead and looked like what I had seen medieval executioners do; and the fool’s guard, holding the sword pointed down in order to invite an attack. It was a kind of “Come and get me!” stance.
Coach Grandy remarked, “This guard stance gives the appearance that you are open to an attack, hence it ‘fools’ your opponent into attacking you.”
There were two more key takeaways for me from the longsword instruction. First, a swordsman must never attack wildly and must always recover into a guarded position. There is, I was learning, very little room for error. Furthermore, a good cut comes from the body, not the arms or shoulders. As a former baseball player and a weekend golfer, I could relate to that, at least in theory.
I discovered through my research and from Coach Grandy that a sword was often the choice not only for barons but also for robbers. Some of the earliest fencing schools in England were considered little better than robbers’ dens, so much so that an edict in 1286 outlawed such establishments, stating, “Whereas it is customary for profligates
to learn the art of fencing, who are thereby emboldened to commit the most unheard of villainies, no school shall be kept in the city.” It was left to the Huns to come up with a more organized and systematic approach to lethal training. By the 14th century, a swordsman could earn a scholarly degree in swordsmanship in Germany.
A general preference for longswords lasted through the Middle Ages, as they were needed to cut through thick armor, but by the end of the 1500s, armor for personal defense was virtually abandoned. Not surprisingly, the use of guns in combat expedited the gradual demise of the knights in armor. It didn’t much help to poke at someone with a sword if he was about to put a bit of lead through your heart. The art of killing at this stage in history became somewhat less dramatic and fun, I imagined.
Fighting with a sword hadn’t lost its appeal entirely, however. It still served a purpose for individual showdowns and the settling of nasty spats. The Italian fencing master Achille Marozzo encouraged his students by insisting that there was nothing nobler than a swordsman. It took Camillo Agrippa, another great Italian, however, to better codify technique, stressing logic over silly romantic notions like slaying dragons and saving damsels in distress. A well-executed lunge came to take precedence over the slashing and hacking that sometimes occurred in a longsword fight.
By the fifth week in my historical fencing class, we moved on to a weapon that was efficient for killing, easier to handle, and served well, as one expert noted succinctly, for “cutting important parts off of one’s opponent.” Hmmm. As Evangelista writes in his tome on modern swordplay, “Suddenly, men were poking neat, lethal holes in one another.” The stubborn Brits held out with their longswords for some time, as they considered men who played with the shorter and lighter rapier to be the equivalent of sissies. Nevertheless, by the 17th century, the rapier was all the rage, and between 1600 and 1780 nearly forty thousand noblemen were killed in sword fights, making the sword a rather useful tool for culling a nation’s top 1 percent.
Coach Grandy explained that the choice of the right weapon could be the difference between victory or death. And it was important to be practiced in the art of everything from a rapier to an épée—a smaller, lighter, and slimmer sword—because when you were in a dispute, someone always got to choose the weapons, and it wasn’t always you, he told us. “If you were not proficient at using a certain sword, and others knew this, your opponent could wisely choose that weapon for the duel.” That could spell doom….
I enjoyed my fencing lessons immensely. I was almost sad that Virginia allowed concealed carry for guns but not open carry for swords in bars. After eight weeks of lessons, I felt about ten years younger, though no more popular with the ladies. At least I understood a little better the attraction that fencing would have held for George Washington.
The sword would remain for George an emblem of honor and service throughout his life. He acquired a large number of swords, not least of which was the sword that General Braddock bequeathed him when he was mortally wounded in July 1755. It is the one he wears in his first self-portrait.
George seemed to have embraced a love of the symbolic value of swords. Accordingly, in his last will and testament, he carefully divided up his weapons to the sons of his brothers. He wrote: “To each of my nephews, William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington, and Samuel Washington, I give one of the swords or cutteaux of which I may die possessed; and they are to chose in the order they are named. These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheathe them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defense, or in defense of their Country and it’s rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.”
This eloquent passage makes it clear that George’s swords were not to be used to settle personal disputes, as was his preference across his storied lifetime. Ironically, one of Washington’s favorite swords would end up at the center of an uprising against slavery led by John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
Reprinted from Riding With George: Sportsmanship & Chivalry in the Making of America's First President by Philip G. Smucker with permission from Chicago Review Press. (c) Copyright 2017. All Rights Reserved.
Philip G. Smucker is a journalist, professor, research fellow at the National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, and the author of My Brother, My Enemy and Al Qaeda’s Great Escape. He lives in Virginia.